Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
# Irish Abroad
Irishman Prendergast plots Racing tactics to break down Saracens defence
The French club’s attack coach is enjoying working with compatriots Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan.

LEINSTER AND ULSTER’S EXITS last weekend means there will no Irish teams playing in this weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals, but there is still going to be a fair bit of Irish involvement.

Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson should feature as Exeter Chiefs welcome Toulouse to Sandy Park for a semi-final refereed by the IRFU’s Andrew Brace, while les Irlandais at Racing 92 will be keen to push past Mark McCall’s Saracens.

Simon Zebo started at fullback and Donnacha Ryan came off the bench for Racing in their quarter-final win away to Clermont, setting up a home semi-final against defending champions Saracens this Saturday at Paris La Défense Arena.

While Zebo and Ryan will hope to play central roles in the Parisian club reaching their third Champions Cup final, taking on Saracens will be an intriguing challenge for Racing attack coach Mike Prendergast too.

donnacha-ryan-with-mike-prendergast-and-simon-zebo-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO Racing 92's Ireland contingent of Donnacha Ryan, Mike Prendergast, and Simon Zebo. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The 43-year-old former Munster scrum-half joined the Top 14 club last year and has helped to make an already-impressive attacking team an even more potent and consistent force.

But after Saracens downed Leinster last weekend in Dublin, where their defence was excellent, Prendergast appreciates that Saturday is going to be a major challenge.

“They’re very clear in what they want to do, very precise,” says Prendergast of Saracens. “You could see at the weekend, it’s their fundamentals – their set-piece, their aerial battle, their physicality was huge on both sides of the ball, especially defensively.

“Leinster generally have a very potent attack but they lost a few collisions with double tackles and it narrowed Leinster a small bit. Saracens have the ability to do that and it’s something we’re very aware of.

“It’s their bread and butter to win collisions, slow the ball down, get numbers on feet, get good spacing and that pressurises your attack.”

Prendergast underlines that the set-piece battle will be crucial after Saracens won seven scrum penalties against Leinster, while Racing have been focusing on their discipline given the long-range kicking threat of Elliot Daly, who could add another few metres onto his limit at the indoor Arena in Paris.

Prendergast hints at Racing having examined “a few areas in attack that might bring us into the game early on” so it will be fascinating to see what they produce.

Under the ex-Young Munster director of rugby’s guidance, Racing have made more clean breaks and beaten more defenders than any of the other semi-finalists in this 2019/20 campaign, while they have also kicked regularly – many of them attacking kicks.

mike-prendergast-during-the-warm-up Billy Stickland / INPHO Prendergast has had a positive influence on Racing's attack. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Prendergast certainly has some high-quality players to work with in the shape of powerful forwards like Camille Chat, Eddy Ben Arous, and Bernard le Roux, as well as creative backline talents such as Finn Russell, Teddy Iribraen, Virimi Vakatawa, and Zebo.

“You give boys a framework, there’s a system there and you want them to express themselves,” says Prendergast of finding the balance between structure and individual decision-making.

“You don’t take away from what they bring to the table.

“You see that with some of our backs like Virimi and obviously Finn Russell. When you have a guy like Finn who can make those late decisions on the line and people read off him, you leave him at it.”

One of the things Prendergast has focused on since arriving at Racing last year has been the detail of their work around the ruck and the results since have spoken for themselves. In 2019/20, Racing have had the quickest ruck speed of any team in France and Europe.

“Everybody is looking to play quick rugby but it’s how you do it. We have a system around the ruck and coming into this weekend, that’s going to be massive.

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“I’m sure Saracens are going to try to curtail us there from a defensive view but it’s something we pride ourselves on. You can have great players but if you can’t get that quick ball, it does nullify it a bit.”

Prendergast says it’s been helpful to himself, head coach Laurent Travers and the other coaching staff that there wasn’t a big turnover of players in Racing over the extended off-season. Many clubs in France make sweeping changes to their squads each summer but Racing brought in only three players in recent months.

laurent-travers-and-mike-prendergast Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Racing boss Laurent Travers with Prendergast. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Exciting wing Donovan Taofifenua joined from Clermont, lock Luke Jones arrived from Australia, and his compatriot, Kurtley Beale, was the marquee signing.

Unfortunately for the versatile 31-year-old Beale, a three-game ban after a red card for a high tackle in his second Top 14 game for Racing meant he missed last weekend’s clash with Clermont and will also be absent versus Saracens.

The club felt his ban was “harsh” but Prendergast says Beale has still been a positive influence, adding “little nuggets” of his extensive knowledge of the game.

With Beale ruled it, Zebo returned from injury for his first appearance of the season at fullback last weekend to remind everyone of his quality. The 30-year-old Corkman had a frustrating 2019/20 campaign due to foot injuries, came out of lockdown fully fit, but was then struck down by a new foot injury before rugby restarted.

“He’s been incredibly unlucky since I came in,” says Prendergast. “I actually haven’t had a huge amount of time with him coaching-wise, only really in the last five or six weeks.

“He came back bouncing. To be fair, he went into a quarter-final with no games behind him but he had trained so well that we had so much confidence in him. 

“He has massive enthusiasm and looks very, very fit. He had a great game on the weekend for a guy who hasn’t played in a long, long time.”

Meanwhile, 36-year-old Ryan continues to have a major influence on everyone at Racing. He was on the bench against Clermont as Dominic Bird and le Roux started in the second row, but the Tipperary man is an essential figure in the set-up.

donnacha-ryan-and-finn-russell-celebrate Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan is a popular figure at Racing. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“He’s so calm and experienced, the boys appreciate him an awful lot here,” says Prendergast.

“They see him on the computer the whole time looking for that extra edge. From a lineout point of view, he’s obviously outstanding in defence and attack. Even stuff around the breakdown, and he’s a great guy from a coach’s point of view with his experience and knowledge.

“We’d have lots of conversations. He’s a very intelligent guy, great rugby intellect and he’s worked under great coaches in Munster and Ireland. He has built up a very good knowledge of the game and he’s able to get that across very well.

“What he does on the rugby pitch is outstanding but he’s also passing that rugby intellect on to younger guys here and it’s something they’ll have in their locker moving forward.

“He’s huge for the club and he’s a massively popular guy because they know how honest he is. He’s an incredibly hard worker and a brilliant guy to have in any squad.”

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